3D printing holds the promise to transform the world in ways not yet imagined. But mention 3D printing to someone, and their first thought will probably be of a toy or rough prototype. And why not? With few exceptions, the 3D-printed objects accessible to most people are made out of plastic. But higher quality materials are available to industrial printers — and will soon be coming to consumer models, enabling a whole new era of creativity and polished products.
Most 3D printers today work by taking a digital file depicting a three-dimensional object, "slicing" it into horizontal layers, and then laying down each layer by extruding material. Plastics like PLA (polylactic acid, derived from corn and used in objects like soft-drink cups) and ABS (the same plastic used to make LEGO bricks) are often the materials of choice.
And that's fine, until a designer wants to 3D print jewelry, dishware or furniture. (Who wants to eat dinner off a plastic plate, no matter how cool the design?)
Shapeways and other industrial printers
Innovations in the industry mean that new materials are becoming available for 3D printer users all the time. Some companies are working toward selling printers that makers can use in their own homes with an exotic array of materials. Other companies, like New York City-based Shapeways and 3D Systems, offer "cloud-based" 3D printing, in which designers upload a model to a factory with industrial printers that use more sophisticated materials, and the finished product is shipped back to their door.
"We currently print in over 30 different materials and variations," said Elisa Richardson, PR and communications manager at Shapeways. That includes plastic in multiple colors and finishes, but also stainless steel, sterling silver, gold-plated brass, mock sandstone and ceramics. The company just introduced "Elasto-plastic," a squishy material that designers can use to make rubbery iPhone cases.
The company now has a team dedicated to new material R&D. "We're going to be launching materials quicker," Richardson said.
New consumer 3D printers
At the Alpharetta, Ga.-based Hyrel 3D, the team is also researching multiple plastics and epoxies for use in consumer printers, including a bunch from polymer company Masterbond. But printing in a new material isn't as easy as just loading up a nozzle and going at it. Every material performs differently.
"You're looking for strength, shrinkage," said Hyrel 3D's CEO Karl Gifford. Hyrel 3D's printer can also use clay, but it's tricky. "The clay can't hold really fine features without stippling," or creating flecks on the surface of the clay, Gifford said. "But we're working on software for it."
Clay and metal are really just the beginning. Oakland, Calif.-based Emerging Objects has made proof-of-concept 3D prints in paper, wood, cement polymer and even salt. Not only are these materials exciting for their novelty, but paper, and wood are low-cost and renewable. (The paper is pulped recycled newsprint; the printed wood comes from sawdust.)
Printers that the average consumer can buy at home still mostly use plastic, but it may not be long before even home users are printing out new furniture, jewelry or plates. (Hyrel 3D sells its printers to industrial and home users, but only began shipping recently.) Till then, the R&D folks at places like Emerging Objects and Shapeways have the maker community's back.